• Tech
  • Social Media

She Built an App to Block Harassment on Twitter. Elon Musk Killed It

5 minute read

Tracy Chou launched the Twitter app Block Party in 2021 to help users escape targeted harassment campaigns that she—as an Asian American woman—knew from personal experience could ostracize vulnerable voices from the public conversation. But on Wednesday Block Party closed its doors, becoming the latest victim of soaring new bills imposed by a struggling Twitter under new owner Elon Musk.

Under Twitter’s former ownership, Chou struck a deal with the company for free access to data—a win-win arrangement that would allow Block Party to grow and provide Twitter with a valuable anti-harassment tool to which it didn’t have to devote expensive engineering time.

But Chou tells TIME that following the recent expiration of that contract, Twitter wanted Block Party to pay $42,000 per month for access to enough data to keep the app running. There was no way Block Party could afford the figure, she says.

“We’re heartbroken that we won’t be able to help protect you from harassers and spammers on the platform, at least for now,” Block Party said in a blog post on its site.

More from TIME

Read More: Social Media Platforms Failed to Tackle Abuse. So Tracy Chou Stepped In

Block Party is just the latest victim of Musk’s drive to monetize Twitter’s API, or application programming interface, a service that lets third-party developers and researchers access Twitter data. The move, some have speculated, is part of efforts to stop the company hemorrhaging money. The company is not profitable, and its revenue has reportedly dropped more than two thirds since Musk took over in October 2022, mainly driven by advertisers deserting the platform. The value of the company has similarly fallen by more than two thirds since Musk’s $44 billion takeover, according to one asset manager.

Musk’s move to monetize access to Twitter’s data may also be a reaction to large language models—artificial intelligence (AI) programs that have boomed in popularity this year. To build models like ChatGPT, companies like its creator OpenAI need large quantities of data, which is often scraped from the internet, including sites like Twitter and Reddit. Musk has sparred with Microsoft, OpenAI’s chief funder, over what he suggested was Microsoft’s “illegal” use of Twitter data for AI training purposes. “I’m open to ideas, but ripping off the Twitter database, demonetizing it (removing ads) and then selling our data to others isn’t a winning solution,” Musk said in a follow-up tweet.

“People want lots of data to train things, and they [Twitter] thought there was an opportunity to monetize better there,” says Block Party’s Chou. “Unfortunately for us, the data volume that we need in order to provide safety services to people is on the larger side. And so when the pricing model is potentially more geared around extracting money from people who want to do [AI] training on large datasets, it also impacts companies like us.”

Twitter isn’t the only company jacking up its API prices. Reddit, which has struggled to turn a profit, said in April that it would change its rules around how third parties could use its data, including introducing new pricing tiers, in reaction to the rise of large language models.

“The Reddit corpus of data is really valuable,” Steve Huffman, the Reddit CEO, told the New York Times in April. “But we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free.”

Like with Twitter and Block Party, the victims of those price changes included independent developers who had built free apps popular with users. Reddit reportedly told developers last month that it planned to increase its API charges to $12,000 per 50 million requests, a figure the developer of Apollo, Reddit’s most popular third-party app, said this week was “far more than I ever could have imagined.” The increase would mean Apollo would need to pay Reddit $20 million per year to maintain its features. “I don’t see how this pricing is anything based in reality or remotely reasonable,” Christian Selig, Apollo’s developer, wrote on the Apollo subreddit. “I hope it goes without saying that I don’t have that kind of money or would even know how to charge it to a credit card.”

“It’s a bummer,” says Chou, the Block Party founder, of the changes to Twitter’s API. “My guess is that it’s a business play to try to extract as much money as possible in the short term. But it’s short sighted because it cuts out a lot of value in the ecosystem that might not be cash value. But it is still value.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com